Smurfs are back with antics, lots of animated adventure

Neil Patrick Harris has to smurf the bills just like everyone else. Or maybe he has to pay the smurfs.

Who really knows? By the end of the inevitable The Smurfs movie, the linguistic eccentricities of the tiny blue sprites reach a Yoda-like level of inconsistency.

But once you're done trying to conjugate the smurfs, there's a better movie than anyone could have possibly expected, thanks in large part to an honest effort by Harris in a thankless role.

For those who have viewed the commercials, even a passable big-screen The Smurfs will seem like a miracle. But this is the rare movie where the worst parts are in the promos. Parents who drew the short straw will be pleased to find that the movie isn't god-awful. It's refreshingly mediocre. Put that blurb on the DVD jacket.

The Smurfs begins in a small village, a live-action version of the psychedelic-looking world from the popular comics and Saturday morning cartoons. A vortex pulls the animated Papa Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Smurfette and others into Central Park, they meet marketing pro Patrick Winslow (Harris), wreck his house, destroy - then save - his career, and get pursued by evil forces for reasons that never make sense. In other words, it's just like an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" film.

A suggestion for adult chaperones: Find excuses to leave (more popcorn, meter-feeding, a game of Angry Birds in the lobby . . .) anytime the scheming wizard Gargamel comes on screen. Hidden under prosthetics, Hank Azaria compensates for his lack of good lines and repulsive makeup by overacting.

The Smurfs gets better from there. There's a sporadic wit - jokes are plentiful about the 99-1 male/female ratio in Smurfland.

Harris, mostly acting against Marshmallow Peep-sized animated creations, is convincing and likable throughout. No doubt he will poke fun at his participation in this film the next time he's hosting an awards show, but don't be fooled. It takes a good actor to save a bad movie.

The Smurfs

Directed by Raja Gosnell. With Sofia Vergara, Jayma Mays, Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris. Distributed by Sony Pictures Columbia.

Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some mild rude humor and action).